Fine Beers in the Wine Country

My brewpub tour of the Napa Valley area

Way back in the mid-90s, some friends and I kicked around the idea of doing a brewpub tour of Northern California, specifically the northern Bay Area where there were a lot of breweries; we lived in the East Bay at the time.  Of course we never got around to actually doing it, but a few years later I was living on my own in Hayward, and I decided I needed a little vacation, wanted to do something kind of special.  So I thought, why not follow through on that old brewpub tour idea, just by myself?  I had plenty of vacation time and that seemed like a great way to shake things up a bit, so I took a week off work, rented a cargo van and stocked it with my camping gear, and headed north. Barons of Beer Ball logo

This was just after the April/May 1998 issue of The Celebrator (at right) had come out.  As it happened, in February the magazine had hosted The Barons of Beer Ball at Pyramid Brewing's outlet in Berkeley.  It was the magazine's ten-year anniversary, and breweries that had been around for a decade were invited there to showcase their beers.  As I recall, the guy in the middle bottom wearing the multicolored wig was Roger Lind, owner of Lind Brewing Company, which was bought by a larger brewery a year or two later; in 2008 it was bought again, this time by Triple Rock.  Here is a scan of the issue's article about the party and the photos from it (excuse me, "Photo's", as they wrote it at the bottom with apostrophe that doesn't belong).

At the time, my friend David Dicks and I were hooked up with Wizard Brewing Company in San Leandro (which closed in 2000 or 2001)—not to be confused with Wizard Brewing Company in the UK, which is currently in business.  Wizard did free beer tastings on Friday evenings and we usually showed up for that.  Ah, those were the days!  We weren't officially connected with Wizard, but we were both homebrewers and had become friendly with the owner, Ken Lindstrom, who had been a homebrewer himself.  We were regulars enough that I actually got to go behind the bar and dispense one night, and I also built him a rudimentary Web site for the brewery, though it never went online.  I still enjoy my rockin' pint glasses from the place; those were a good purchase.

Wizard Brewing started in 1995 so it didn't qualify for a booth at the celebration, but as a California micro it did get special admission, and David and I, plus his wife Deb and my friend Deb Lim, came as special guests of Wizard.  That was pretty incredible—we were there as sorta official guests of a real professional brewery!  And by chance, the photographers caught three of us in one of the pics that made it onto the cover of the next Celebrator issue.  That's us to the left (and in the left of the picture: David has glasses and a mustache, I had a beard (then) and am taking a swig, and Deb Dicks is turned around looking at the camera.  As with most of the other photos on this page, click for a larger image.  David and I are holding the 8oz. souvenir glasses that came with admission; I still use mine (at right) as my official homebrew tasting glass when I'm brewing.

So, I started the van and headed north on Highway 101.  My routine was that every morning I would get up, have a leisurely breakfast, and head off to the next place for lunch.  Of course at lunch I didn't drink whole pints, since I had to drive; instead I'd get their sampler: little glasses of several of their beers.  Then I'd move on to where I'd be spending the night; I'd drive around and find a nice spot where I could park overnight, within walking distance of the pub but also someplace that wouldn't make homeowners nervous.  Sometimes I'd stop at two places in the middle of the day; I had plenty of time.  Once I was parked, I lounged in the van: I had laid out my sleeping bag (a really old cotton batting one we used to take camping when I was a kid), and I had an old deck chair positioned just inside facing the van's side door, so while parked, I could sit in the chair, open the door and face out (like a front porch) and enjoy the day while I read the book I brought, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, one of the little-known sequels to The Three Musketeers.  For refreshments I had a case of Full Sail Ale—this was, after all, a Brewpub Tour.

I kept notes on each beer I sampled, which I still have and can share if anyone's interested.  Taking a tip from when we used to camp when I was a kid, I had brought a coffee can to relieve myself at night—important when you've been swilling beer (or is that TMI?).  And on this trip I sponge-bathed in the van; I had my Coleman propane stove to heat the water, and also to heat water for tea and oatmeal for breakfast in the morning (coffee would've been nice, but tea is much easier to make on the road).

This wasn't the hairy, mind-numbing bender I had expected when I set out, but then—d'oh!—this was the middle of the week.  That's ok though; I got to hang out and have a few drinks on quiet evenings in new and interesting places.  I've always been glad I took this trip, and I'm pleased to finally put it online to share with others.

Day 1 - Monday

I set out on the morning of April 13, 1998.  My first intended stop was Moylan's Brewery in Novato, but—whoops—it wasn't open yet.  This was an issue I encountered many times on this trip—when I travel places I'm used to driving for several hours, where you arrive at your destination around a different mealtime, but the distances were really short on this trip and I had trouble getting used to that.  So an hour and a half after starting I was already at my first port of call, and it was only like 10am.  Dang, well time to move on.  (I've since visited Moylan's, and their beers I had were pretty good, though I didn't sit down to rate them.)  As a result of the short distances and how much time I had to get from place to place, I ended up shortening up my trip from five to four days because I could often fit in three instead of two breweries.

Next up was Petaluma, home of Dempsey's Ale House, now Dempsey's Restaurant & Brewery, where I had lunch.  The food was a little more on the fancy side than standard pub grub.  The best beer here, I thought, was Big River Barley Wine, with a great malty aroma and flavor.  Unfortunately they don't seem to make it any more, but they do have a Petaluma Strong Ale now; it's not as alcoholic as the barley wine (7.4% vs. 10%) but if it tastes anything like Big River it deserves to be the company's flagship product.

By the way, that white cargo van in the photo in the picture, and some others farther down, was the one I drove and camped in on this trip.  I'm used to driving a small car so the thing felt like a hog on the twisty roads of the North Bay, but it sure was handy to carry my house on my back.  It was awkward to find my way around town in some places, but I never had to worry about finding a motel room to stay in, especially somewhere affordable within walking distance of where I'd be tippling.

Third Street Ale Works

Next I stopped at Santa Rosa's Third Street Ale Works (at right).  This place had three brews on tap (and would be bringing out more later that day)—all of which were good solid beers, though none were standouts.

Bear Republic Brewing Company Bear Republic Brewing Company, from across the plaza

After that I moved on to Healdsburg and Bear Republic Brewing Company (at left).  This was my stopover for the night, and as it happens there was a parking lot nearby with a porta-potty, which was awesome—I didn't have to use the coffee can.  Bear Republic served a variety of ales, which like Third Street's were all quite decent, but I didn't think any quite excelled.  However, the pub itself stood out by its external decor, flying the old colonial flags of California above its entrance: a US flag with 28 stars, the old California flag, Mexican flags from two different time periods, Russia's, England's, and Spain's—in that order.  The inside decor was all very California, appropriate for a place named for the Republic.

Day 2 - Tuesday

Anderson Valley Brewing Company (the Buckhorn Saloon)

Destination: Boonville, home of Anderson Valley Brewing Company.  I'd heard their beers were very good indeed, so I pulled up at the on-site outlet, the Buckhorn Saloon, which has since been replaced by a larger, fancier outlet close by named simply The Buckhorn.  I approached the door with anticipation, only to see that it was closed on Tuesdays.  Bummer!! 

So I repaired to my van to think up a backup plan.  It turned out I had prepared for such an eventuality: there was a brewpub in Fort Bragg, which was out of my way but would make a good fallback destination, and I was at the perfect spot on my trip to take advantage of it.  So I figured ok, I'll head up there and then come back tomorrow, no problem.  I settled for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Boonville's tiny main drag.

North Coast Brewing Company

So I drove up to Fort Bragg, located North Coast Brewing Company, and found a place to park for the night some ways up the street.  I had a nice healthy dinner there, which was refreshing after a heavy Mexican lunch, and later spent the evening in the taproom.  Apparently (at least nowadays) the brewery hosts live jazz on Friday and Saturday evenings, but luckily for me this was a Tuesday.  The taproom was cozy, with couches, chairs, and if I remember right, a fireplace.  Easily the best beer here, in my estimation, was Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, a fine example of a Russian imperial stout (basically a cross between a stout and a barley wine) and one of my all-time favorite beers.  On site they served it on nitrogen to give it a creamy Guinness-style head, but only in 10oz. glasses rather than pints, as most places do with barley wines and other really strong beers.

Also while in the area I did some sightseeing.  I visited Glass Beach (the three on the left below), the site of an old dump where only sand-polished glass remains today.  I stopped at a view point nearby (fourth and fifth pics), and the shot on the right is from Mountain View Road as I moved on.

Glass Beach Glass Beach Glass Beach View Point near Fort Bragg View Point near Fort Bragg Looking back from Mountain View Road

Day 3 - Wednesday

Mendocino Brewing Company in 1998 Mendocino Brewing Company in 1998

Now back to Boonville to try Anderson Valley Brewing Co.  They were still closed!  Turns out the place is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, exactly when I was there.  My own damn fault for not paying attention, but what a disappointment.  I've since been back to Anderson, to the new location, about ten years later.  I thought their beers were good, but didn't live up to what I had heard about them: then again, my expectations had set pretty high so it might be surprising if they had surpassed them.

I didn't have something to fall back to for a second day, so I moved on to Hopland, home to Mendocino Brewing Company.  This, as you can see, was an old brick building; inside was lots of brick and wood, giving it a nice warm decor, and the place had a comfortable feel.  I didn't think any of the beers were very remarkable though, but I have had some very nice ones of theirs since, so I may have just been there at a bad time.  Incidentally the brewery has since closed this outlet and opened another one, which I haven't seen.  From here I mailed a postcard to my coworkers, telling them about my trip so far.  Nowadays of course you'd just blog your experience and email your coworkers, but this was a different time.

St. Helena Brewing Company

Next I visited Mt. St. Helena Brewing Company in Middletown (at left).  This place had more of a "wine country" theme, light and airy with light wood color.  The beers were all good, especially Palisades, the best pale ale I had on this trip; I hope they're still making it.

Napa Valley Brewing Company

Then I stopped in Calistoga for the night, spending the evening at the Napa Valley Brewing Company (at right), which was the bar/restaurant section of the Calistoga Inn.  This was a nice place and I hung out at the bar that night with a pretty Chinese woman.  The place served a very good Red Ale, and their Mud Bath Stout was superb, everything I like to taste in a stout.

Day 4 - Thursday

I think it was the next day that I visited the Calistoga petrified forest.  It was close by and I had plenty of time, so why not see the sights?  There was a petrified forest on the map, and that sounded like (and was) a great investment of my time.  One thing I learned was that it wasn't what I expected: given the name, I expected a hillside full of petrified stumps or something, but this was a handful of fallen-over partial tree trunks and chunks of logs.  This is because of the way petrification happens—most often a tree simply rots away, but in just-right circumstances, parts of one can be buried such that they're covered with volcanic ash or whatever, forming a covering that allows silicates to trickle in as the wood decomposes, creating a stone impression of what was there before.

The Queen (petrified tree with a pine growing through it) Petrified logs Petrified wood
Downtown Joe's

My last stop was Downtown Joe's in Napa.  It has a nice open-air patio area and served several tasty beers—among them James Brown Ale (which they still serve, apparently), an outstanding brown ale.  As I recall, the waitress saw me taking notes and asked what I was doing, and I said I was writing an article for the Celebrator—which was essentially true, but I guess it sounded like I was with the magazine, not some schmoe hoping to submit a freelance article to it.  She came back after a bit asking if I'd like to meet the brewmaster, but I declined.  It wasn't like I was employed by the magazine, and I wasn't sure what I would say to the brewmaster anyway (I'm not good at casual conversation).  Given that my article wasn't published, I'm kind of glad I didn't take advantage of the opportunity.

Anyhow, on the final stretch I skipped Black Diamond (now closed) and Faultline Brewing Companies in Walnut Creek—it was early in the day and I was kind of done by then.  So I drove back to Hayward, returned the van, and came home.

I kept notes on all the places I visited and formally judged all the beers I sampled (I still have the judging sheets), since I hoped to write this up as an article to be published in The Celebrator.  I submitted the article but never heard back, not even so much as an acknowledgement that they'd received it.


I thought I had sent my photos with the submission and assumed they were lost forever, but then I stumbled on them one evening in October 2015.  Well with these, I thought, why not write up my brewpub tour as a Web page?  Someone might find it worth reading.

So here then is the article I submitted to the magazine.  Bear in mind that the locations, the foods, and especially the beers are described as I found them in 1998, and much will have changed by now, though some should still apply.  "Fine Beers in the Wine Country"

Email me  Please email me with questions or comments.